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Used To Be by Elizabeth Baines (Salt, 2015)

Reviewed by Emma Bosworth


'and I thought of myself in the time before I made all my choices, when all the narratives were open...'

In her latest collection of short stories, Used To Be, Elizabeth Baines explores the nature of time, examining the effects of its passage on her characters' perception of events and places, as they navigate the world searching for clarity, certainty, explanation. The collection is arranged in two parts, What Was, What Is and What May Be, but in all of the stories the characters are subject to the intricate interplay of past, present and future: 'in spite of what narrative so often tells us, nothing, including our personalities, is stable'.

In 'Tides', a couple stand by the sea at dusk, ‘the point from which the tale could go backwards to all that happened before, and forwards, beyond that night’. In the fast-paced title story, 'Used to Be', a middle-aged writer is hurtling along a motorway with her sister: 'And flashing past with the bridges are all my selves: the single mother, the hippy student, the middle-class housewife giving dinners, the teacher's-pet swot, the efficient no-nonsense young professional.' In the haunting, enigmatic 'Looking for the Castle', a woman returns to the town where she lived as a girl but the ruined castle she remembers so vividly is nowhere to be seen. As the story progresses, an unsettling sense arises that past and present are out of alignment, as if she has invented the memory, or dreamt it.

The writing is vivid, buoyant, incisive: 'filling her ears with a noise so loud it swelled to a kind of silence'; ‘a man in a bright blue jumper came out to his car, whistling into the glassy twenty-first century day’. The stories explore a wide range of styles, voices and forms, reflecting their publication in a variety of magazines and anthologies. What connects and unifies them is their vibrant evocation of time and place – and the power of the human mind to transcend both.

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